Nontando Hadebe – « An invitation to dialogue between queer theories and African theologies »

Nontando Hadebe

« ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth? Come and see!’ An invitation to dialogue between queer theories and African theologies »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction

‘Like coal miners used caged canary birds, whose death was a warning sign of toxic gases in the mine tunnels, homosexual women and men, and transgender and intersex people in southern Africa are at the coalface of the multiple dangers in many of our societies today. How our societies treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people is symptomatic of the dangers facing all people who are excluded in some way or another in our societies, by those who have a grip on social, economic, and political power.’[1]

The above quotation makes responsible those with a ‘grip on social, economic and political power’ for the ‘multiple dangers’ faced by LGBTI persons and other marginalized groups. These violations are essentially ‘identity wars’ because the only criterion for being subjected to multiple violations is one’s belonging to a particular group. African theologians, too, are no strangers to ‘identity wars’ because one of the first challenges to which they had to respond was whether African identity was consistent with being Christian; in other words, could one be ‘African’ and ‘Christian’? LGBTI persons face the same question of whether they can remain true to their sexual identity and still be Christian and African. Is it possible to claim a triple identity as queer, Christian and African? Homophobic positions will argue that it is impossible to possess this triple identity, and hence as mentioned in the quotation, queer persons face multiple forms of violence. However, as the quotation also notes, these violations are not exclusively faced by queer persons but also by other marginalized groups. By implication, responding to queer experiences translates into addressing the fundamental causes underlying identity-based conflicts that are destroying many parts of Africa and are also creating fragmentation in the Church. Queer theory’s critique of structures and practices of exclusion provides an important resource for a dialogue between queer theory and African theologies that aims at social transformation and liberation of sexual and other minorities.

Queer theory disrupts and problematizes fixed essentialist identities such as homosexuality, heterosexual, ethnicity, and proposes fluid and diverse identities. Yet, there may be skepticism on whether there is merit in engaging with queer theory. Hence my appropriation of the dialogue between Philip and Nathanial which starts with resistance (‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’) and continues with an invitation (‘Come and see’), culminating in a transformative encounter with Jesus (Jn 1.47–56). My proposal for a dialogue between queer theory and African theology draws on the four characteristics of queer theory outlined by Patrick S. Cheng.[2] But before discussing queer theory in dialogue with African theologies, I will briefly offer some context on the status of queer persons in some parts of Africa. 

II. Context: The status of queer persons in some parts of Africa 

Decolonial theorists argue that identities in former colonies cannot be understood apart from the colonial legacies that legitimized and sustained inequality. Ramón Grosfoguel[3] describes the colonial ‘power matrix’ as consisting of fifteen global hierarchies that privilege some groups at the expense of others, for example ‘a sexual hierarchy that privileges heterosexuals over homosexuals and lesbians’; ‘a global racial/ethnic hierarchy that privileges European people over non-European people’; and ‘a spiritual hierarchy that privileges Christians over non-Christian/non-Western spiritualities institutionalized in the globalization of the Christian (Catholic and later, Protestant) church.’[4] Colonial law criminalized homosexual acts and was supported by Christian beliefs. In Catholicism, for example, we find both the affirmation of the dignity of LGBTIQ persons as created in the image of God[5] and the strong condemnation of homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered.’[6] Similarly, popular discourses by politicians claim that homosexuality is ‘un-African and an import from the Western countries’.[7] These colonial, legal and religious legacies have contributed to homophobia in many parts of Africa, resulting in a situation where LGBTI persons experience multiple forms of violence in public and private spaces:

‘The last decade has seen an unprecedented rise in the levels of discrimination and violence directed towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in sub-Saharan Africa. LGBTI people have faced harassment, persecution, and vilification. They have been subject to: forcible eviction from their homes because of who they are; being kicked out of churches and schools; laws that have been introduced to introduce or increase sanctions for consensual same-sex sexual activity; arbitrary arrest by police; imprisonment for actual or suspected consensual same-sex conduct (or for their identities); torture and other ill treatment whilst in detention; judicially-ordered forced anal examinations; murder; rape; beatings; stabbings; being branded paedophiles; accused of “recruiting” children into homosexuality; accused of sorcery; disowned by their own families; public denigration by politicians and political parties; and blame by religious leaders for societies’ economic and social ills. This is not an exhaustive list.’[8]

These acts of terror and brutality against queer persons are an indictment of the societies in which they take place as well as the religions that are part of these societies. As mentioned in the introduction, other forms of identity-based discrimination and resulting violent conflicts have destroyed many lives through genocides, xenophobia, inter-religious wars, and political violence based in ethnicities. In these contexts of identity-based violence, can queer theory’s critique of identity categories provide an alternative framework for constructing identities and peaceful and just societies?

III. Four Characteristics of Queer Theory

In his review of the contribution of queer theory to theology, Patrick Cheng offers a summary of four main characteristics of queer theories, namely identity without essence; transgression; resistance to binaries; and social construction. I will briefly present these before discussing their contributions to the dialogue between queer theory and African theologies.

a) Identity without essence

Queer theory criticizes ‘stable identity markers’ and their claims to ‘naturalness.’ It resists the essentialism that characterizes fixed identities of sexuality, race or gender and the forms of oppression based on these categories. Queer theory is a way of thinking whose critique of identity categories is not confined to gender and sexual identities but also includes categories that create difference, such as race, class and ethnicities.[9] It examines the underlying power structures that construct difference as inequality which, as noted in the previous section, is implicated in human rights violations not only of LGBTI person but of all marginalized groups. 

b) Transgression

Transgression in the context of queer theories refers to the commitment to challenge ‘the normal, the legitimate and dominant’.[10] Therefore ‘to queer’ as a verb refers to actions that ‘subvert, deconstruct and challenge’ the status quo rather than reaffirm any position. For oppressed groups, the ‘normal and legitimate’ are constructions that are used by those in power to legitimize and sustain inequality. Thus queer theory is in synch with liberation movements that start with the concrete, lived experiences of injustice of oppressed groups as the framework that empowers them to rename, resist and oppose the oppressive social systems legitimized by the powerful.  

c) Resistance to binaries

Queer theories destabilize and resist binaries, for example the gender binary that divides humanity in female and male, that are absolutized, essentialized and homogenized without the recognition of diversity among individuals or the existence of groups that do not identify exclusively with either sex, such as gender-fluid or intersex persons. Binaries are the source of inequality when one part is valued higher than the other and are thus at the base of power structures. This is true also for other binary ways of categorization including race (white and black), ability (disabled and able-bodied), ethnicity (African and non-African) and human and rest of creation. [11]

d) Social construction

The theory of social construction is central to queer theory and its liberative emphasis because it demystifies the assumption that identities are ‘natural’ and points to human agency working together with other social and historical forces in the construction and development of identities over time and in different contexts. Because socially constructed, identity-based oppressive can be deconstructed, resisted and reconstructed.

Homophobia is a barrier to dialogue with queer theories; therefore a model of invitation as a response to resistance will be discussed next.[12]

IV. Invitation in Response to Resistance

As noted earlier, the dialogue between Philip and Nathaniel that is characterized by resistance and invitation is proposed as the starting point for the dialogue between queer theories and theologies in Africa. This, however, does not imply that African theologians are not already critically engaging with homophobia, but rather that there is not much dialogue with western queer theories so far. I will use the text from the Gospel of John as a narrative that becomes a metaphor for dialogue, and therefore will not develop an exegetical analysis of the text. Let me quote from John 1.43–50:

‘The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”’ [my emphasis]

Three aspects of the narrative will be discussed: the naming of the characters’ cities of origin as a source of prejudice; resistance and invitation; and the encounter with Jesus. First, it is interesting to note that the city of Bethsaida is associated with Philip, Andrew and Peter, which seems to indicate a positive quality of the city and its inhabitants. Jesus is identified through Nazareth, the city where he was raised. These identity markers attribute status to particular locations, and in this case Nazareth and everybody from there are portrayed negatively as ‘lacking any good,’ a sign of the marginalization of Nazareth. Second, Nathaniel’s instinctive response to Phillip’s description of Jesus as the Messiah from Nazareth reflects the prevailing social prejudice associated with the city and its inhabitants. Philip does not argue but invites Nathaniel to come and witness someone from Nazareth who does not fit the stereotype. Surprisingly Nathaniel offers no resistance and accompanies Philip to meet Jesus, an encounter that disrupts everything that he believed about people from Nazareth. Third, in his response to Nathaniel, Jesus does not refer to any identity markers or prejudice but instead addresses him as an individual focusing on his character (‘in whom there is no deceit’) and specific action (‘sitting under a fig tree’). During their conversation free from prejudice and stereotypes, Nathaniel encounters Jesus in his true identity as the ‘Son of God.’ Their recognition of each other’s true identities brings about a new reality that transcends their identities contained in Jesus’ promise that Nathaniel will see greater ‘greater things than these.’ This narrative includes strands of queer theory, such as the breaking down of fixed identities (Nazareth versus Bethsaida), transcending and transgressing binaries (Jesus’s non-discriminatory conversation with Nathaniel) and the move beyond identities toward the transformation of society, reflected in Jesus’ mission throughout the gospels and summarized in Luke 4.17-19. Hence this narrative offers a framework for dialogue between queer theories and African theologies.

V. ‘Come and See’: African Theologies and Queer Theories

As mentioned above, African theologies emerged from the resistance to the identity crisis of being both African and Christian. The dominant colonial narrative emphasized ‘the notion that non-Europeans differ utterly and essentially from Europeans was a cornerstone of colonialist thought’.[13] Many missionaries shared these colonial beliefs and it was this ‘ideological identification of the missionary enterprise with the colonial regimes that generated a crisis of identity amongst the African converts’.[14] Further, some missionaries denigrated African cultures which made it ‘inconceivable to them that there could be anything positive in these cultures through which the gospel message might be conveyed’.[15]Similarly, apartheid in South Africa used the Bible to legitimize racism.

In the dialogue that I initiate here as a response to the experience of the rejection of queer persons, I will draw on the characteristics of queer theories described by Cheng that are also reflected in the narrative from the gospel of John to show how these can help to provide a theological response to identity-based conflict, violence and discrimination that continue to plague many parts of Africa. Identity categories also plays a role in the Catholic Church as criteria for inclusion and exclusion. For example, marital status, sexual identity and denomination are markers used to exclude persons from communion (divorced and remarried persons, non-Catholics) or ordination (women, married men, queer persons).

In order to begin this dialogue, I will discuss two points central to queer theory, namely the transgression of binaries and fixed identities, and the transcendence of identities as acts of social justice.

First, queer theory disruption and transgression of binaries that perpetuate fixed identities by creating fluid and diverse identities is an act of social justice because differences among groups are often used by those in power to justify discrimination and exclusion resulting violence and conflicts. For example, ethnic conflicts are sustained by fixed identities that enable group members to identify those within and outside their group. It is not uncommon in daily interactions for people to refer to persons exclusively in terms of their ethnicity. For example, many people think, ‘he or she is (name of ethnic group) and that is why they behave in a particular way or possess a particular characteristic’. This identity is perceived to be constant and present in all members of the group. The genocide in Rwanda is a tragic example of the destructive power of fixed identities. In the narrative from John, Nathaniel’s initial resistance to Jesus was based on such collective identities associated with geographical location. Hence, the call of queer theory for fluid, non-binary and diverse identities has the potential to break down the walls that divide groups and confine individuals to a particular collective identity. Fluid identities allow for diversity that liberates group members and hopefully generate acceptance of diversity in all groups. As seen in the conversation between Jesus and Nathaniel, the dissolution of rigid identities can result in encounters free of prejudice and stereotype, where authentic individual identities emerge. Similarly, the disruption of rigid binary identity categories in the Catholic Church could lead to an inclusive community from which nobody is excluded on the basic of their identity. The shift from fixed binary identities to fluid diverse identities will require theological anthropologies that foster just relationships and practices. Trinitarian theology provides an important resource because within the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit we find difference, equality, relationship and oneness. Leonard Boff describes a trinitarian anthropology as follows, 

‘In the Trinity there is no domination by one side, but convergence of the Three in mutual acceptance and giving. They are different but none is greater or lesser, before or after. Therefore a society that takes its inspiration from Trinitarian communion cannot tolerate class differences, dominations based on power (economic, sexual or ideological) that subjects those who are different to those who exercise that power and marginalizes the former from the latter.’[16]

Another resource is the African concept of personhood as relational and communal. For example, in my language, Ndebele, we say umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a persons is a person because or through others). Elias Bogmba describes ubuntu as ‘humaneness’: ‘central to the concept is the idea that relations and transactions that take place among people should be undertaken humanely, in the light of values people share in a given community’.[17]

The second aspects proceeds from the first, and asks whether we need identity categories at all given that they have been the source of conflict, discrimination and injustice? Queer theory is justifiably wary that newly established fluid identities could with time become fixed and reproduce similar prejudices and conflicts. Hence the need for a flow of identities that are constantly critiqued, evolving and resisting fixations. An example of this is a comparison of pre-independence and post-independence experiences of identity in colonized Africa. During the struggle against colonialism there was one singular shared identity of being an ‘African’ or a national of one’s country. After independence, this fixed identity was challenged by those who felt excluded, such as minority ethnic groups, women, persons with disabilities and queer persons. These groups developed a collective identity in order to fight a common cause but with time, the differences within these groups disrupted their identity, and the process of continues. This process of disruption is an issue of justice because it seems that as soon as identities are fixed there is exclusion of other groups followed by injustice and conflict. Queer theory’s insistence that the way to justice is the constant disruption of identity categories is supported from a practical perspective by such struggles for liberation. Therefore queer theory is a quest for social justice which, when integrated with theology, produces liberation theologies that promote justice in church and society.

VI. Conclusion

Queer theory disrupts, transgresses and transcends identities as an act of social justice. The narrative in John shows us a conversation that confronts and disrupts prejudice in an encounter that reveals the personhood of Jesus and Nathaniel outside of group identities. This transcendence of identities promises to be the gateway for a vision of social justice reflected in the words and deeds of Jesus. Inspired by this conversation, my proposal for a dialogue that draws on the insights of queer theory, integrating trinitarian theological anthropology and African traditions of personhood, offers alternative resources for addressing identity-based conflicts and violations of human rights currently taking place in many parts of Africa, as well as practices of exclusion and inclusion in the Catholic Church. The contributions of queer theory are critical for both church and society not only in Africa but in the world. 


[1]Mark Gevisser, Canaries in the Coal Mines: An analysis of Activism of Spaces for LGBTI Activism in Southern Africa, Johannesburg: Other Foundation, 2016, p. 3, at

[2] Patrick S. Cheng. ‘Contributions from Queer Theory’, in Adrian Thatcher (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender, Oxford: Oxford University, 2015, pp. 154–169. 

[3] Ramón Grosfoguel, ‘Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political-Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality’, Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, 1.1, at

[4] Grosfoguel, ‘Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies’.

[5] Pope Francis, Joy of Love, at

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2357, at

[7] Gevisser, Canaries in the Coal Mines.

[8] Amnesty International, ‘Speaking Out: Advocacy Experiences and Tools of LGBTI Activists in Sub-Saharan Africa’, 2014, at ttps://

[9] Cheng, ‘Contributions from Queer Theory’, p. 156.

[10] Cheng, ‘Contributions from Queer Theory’, p. 156.

[11] Cheng, ‘Contributions from Queer Theory’, p. 157.

[12] Cheng, ‘Contributions from Queer Theory’, p. 156.

[13] Jürgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Translated from German by Shelley L. Frisch, Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997, p. 107.

[14] Jesse N.K. Mugambi, Christianity and African Culture, Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2002, p. 2.

[15] Diane Stinton. ‘Africa, East and West,’ in John Parratt, Introduction to Third World Theologies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 105–136.

[16] Leornado Boff, Trinity and Society. Translated from Portuguese by Paul Burns, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1988, p. 151.

[17] Elias K. Bogma, ‘Reflections on Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 30.2 (2004), 298.


Nontando Hadebe is a lay Catholic woman theologian and Research Fellow in Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and part-time lecturer at St Augustine College of South Africa. With Ezra Chitandao, she edited ​Compassionate Circles: African Women Theologians Facing HIV​ (2009). She has written on gender, trinitarian theology, ecology, HIV/AIDS, LGBTIQ and decoloniality, and presents a weekly radio program on Radio Veritas.

Address: St Augustine College, 53 Ley Road, Victory Park, Johannesburg, 2195, South Africa.